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Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age

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Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age Abrams, 2001. 256pp. £34

Vital Forms accompanies an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art until January 2002, writes Andrew Mead. The premise is that from 1940-60, as the atom bomb and the Cold War threatened existence in an unprecedented way, artists and designers responded with organic images, redolent of the human body and of natural life - 'vital forms', in fact. The show presents paintings, sculptures, furniture, and household objects, plus some photographs of buildings, to make this point. Sensibly, it does not propose a simple cause and effect. After all, such biomorphic forms were a Surrealist speciality well before the Second World War. Nonetheless, says Kevin Stayton in his introduction, 'the turning away from the old aesthetic of hardedged machine imagery toward an aesthetic based on the fluid, organic forms of the post-war era was at least in part a response to the unsettling ambivalence and anxieties of the new age.'

Anticipating another obvious objection, he adds: 'This is not to say that organic form was the only, or even the most prevalent, expression of style in the period . . . Just as vigorous was the International Style.' Other contributors to this book make similar disclaimers, so what we are left with is an aesthetic tendency whose roots are various and often speculative. But, visually, Vital Forms is diverting. It takes in Jackson Pollock and Attack of the Crab Monsters, Noguchi tables and Cadillac convertibles. Hula-hoops, tupperware, Eero Saarinen and Frank Lloyd Wright - they're all here.

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